Bittersweet Victory: July/August 2012 | STATE LEGISLATURES MAGAZINE
BettyLou DeCroce took her late husband’s seat in the New Jersey Legislature. He would have wanted it that way.
By Natalie Davis
It certainly wasn’t how BettyLou DeCroce wanted to gain a seat in the New Jersey Legislature.
In January, a GOP panel at a special convention named her to represent the 26th District for the remainder of the year. It was bittersweet. Her husband, Alex DeCroce, had held the seat for more than two decades. But on Jan. 9, he collapsed and died of a heart attack at the statehouse in Trenton, just after the end of a late-night legislative session.
“This was Alex’s plan. We talked long ago about me following him into the General Assembly,” DeCroce says. “He said to me, ‘A woman should be in the seat, and with everything you have to offer and that you do for me, you would be a great help.’ But didn’t happen the way we wanted. We both would have preferred to have him standing beside me. But this is what he wanted, and my family agreed.
“I’m where I’m meant to be.”
Following her husband’s death, she was almost immediately thrust into the spotlight as GOP leaders turned to her to fill the shoes of her late husband.
Some diminished her easy win, calling it nothing more than an entitlement vote. But most—including a large number of locally elected officials—believed her career in government at the municipal, county and state levels made her uniquely qualified. Some even said she was more qualified than her husband was when he began his first term in 1989.
As her supporters expected, after being sworn into office in February, she hit the ground running.
She signed on as a prime sponsor of “Alex DeCroce’s Law” to protect the rights of crime victims to have their say in court, be free from intimidation and receive the medical care needed, which her husband had backed. She supported her party in casting a vote against a marriage equality bill. She has begun to work on legislation to deal with flood mitigation issues. And she spends much of her time on the road visiting the townships in her district.
“The assemblywoman is already showing her strong, conservative leadership, which the state sorely needs,” says her district partner, Assemblyman Jay Webber (R). “I am very proud to work with her and look forward to this partnership continuing in the future.”
That will depend on the voters, of course. She won a primary challenge in June and will run in a special election in November to serve out the second year of her late husband’s term. In 2013, she can run for a full term on her own.
Her campaign is gaining support.
“I have the opportunity now to show voters who I am outside of being Alex’s wife,” she says. “I intend to show them through hard work that I am an experienced public servant, which is different from being a politician. For me, it’s not the title, it’s what you do as an individual to make a difference. I truly am here to make life better for the people of my district.”
DeCroce started down the path to legislative service long before she married in 1994.
“My grandmother was an aide to [U.S. Representative] Rodney Frelinghuysen’s father, and my grandfather was an elected councilperson in Rockaway for almost 30 years,” she says. “When I turned 18, my grandmother said, ‘You’re working the polls.’ I was one of 10 grandchildren, and I was the one to follow my grandparents into politics.”
After studying business and government, respectively, at Berkeley College and Rutgers University, she went to work “to make things better for people.”
She first served on the Mine Hill, N.J., Township Council. That was followed by a stint on the town’s planning board, as a municipal clerk, as a chair and fund-raiser for several Republican campaigns, as commissioner of health insurance funds, and as a member of a zoning board.
“Some of the things I’ve done go way, way back,” she says, recalling her job as an assemblyman’s aide. “All of this helped me learn how municipalities work. I also gained experience with the county working for the sheriff’s office.”
DeCroce was serving as a deputy commissioner of New Jersey’s Department of Community Affairs when her husband died.
She also has business experience at various companies, and currently is a real estate agent.
How does she do it all?
“I’m a multitasker. I can do many things at a given time,” she says. “Women tend to be able to do this: You can run a home, have a family, operate a business and have a career. You just have to work hard at it and be willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done.”
She said her work ethic is part of what drew Alex DeCroce to her when he was running for a seat on the Morris County Board of Freeholders and she was campaign vice chair for his opponent.
The DeCroces were married for 18 years. They shared a love of politics, she says, but respected their differing viewpoints.
“There is a lot in me that is different than what Alex was,” she says. “That’s why he and I were such a great match. He had the state end, and I had the local end. Bringing those together was, I think, very good for the people because that brought in knowledge from all sides.”
Not every political family can have that kind of harmony, she says.
“Yes, it is tough sometimes. All the wonderful things happening are bittersweet,” she says. “Sometimes I think about it and start to well up. But Alex would not want me to do that. He’d say, ‘Don’t cry. Show them you’re strong.’ So that’s what I do. I focus on the work.”
Natalie Davis is a veteran reporter-editor who operates Grateful Dread Peace Media in Summit, N.J.